And so another controversy at Trinity has become a national outpouring of anxiety and rage, and all middle-ground or nuance has disappeared. Everyone is now either for The University Times or against them, for progressivism and press freedom or censorship and elite boys’ clubs. We are left to wonder how many young people will be turned away from Trinity by the past week’s coverage, still believing in a pompous colonial Trinity that has not existed for decades. Does anyone really think that if this same thing had happened in any other university in the country it would receive this kind of coverage?
But maybe the answer is that the same thing would never happen at another university. There is hazing everywhere: wherever there are all-male sports clubs there is probably hazing; and there are student newspapers as well. But what makes Trinity different is the sheer madness of it, the willingness of everyone involved to go nuclear. And now that is what everyone has done. If the worst of everything is to be believed, either The University Times may be defunded in a totalitarian attack on press freedom or every student in Trinity will spend the rest of their time in College checking for wires under living room furniture.
That is the mess we are in. It is time now to start clearing it up, so that people – Trinity students – can get to the bottom of things without having to swim through media muck.
“We would not defund The University Times; it would be a crude, senseless thing to do.”
Students should oppose the referendum to dramatically reduce the budget of The University Times. Trinity News always has, even though the UT Editor repeatedly falsely implied otherwise, and even though certain media figures – adults who should know how to fact check – attempted to brand this newspaper as enemies of press freedom. Trinity has benefited from and deserves two student newspapers. Both are better because of the competition, and the presence of both has allowed each to develop its own culture – we would be a very different newspaper without The University Times, and vice versa.
Press freedom is not just a pair of words for sticking onto the end of a Tweet; it is a force that binds together the many elements of social life that would otherwise float around aimlessly. Together the papers give students a space to discuss issues that concern them, a way of learning about what is going on around them, and a sense of how the different parts of their world relate to one another. Without student newspapers, there is no student life. We would not defund The University Times; it would be a crude, senseless thing to do.
But everything about the petition to defund has been crude and senseless; none of its many signatories have been willing to come out to lead the Yes side in the campaign they have imposed upon us all. Not only would a Yes vote destroy one of the country’s best student newspapers, but the referendum itself has caused the issue of bugging to be conflated with the controversy earlier in the year of UT’s €16,000 deficit, excluding the cost of the Editor’s wage and accommodation. Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President, Shane de Rís, said at the last Council meeting that he had been forced to shelve a referendum that would have made the paper’s budget the same as Trinity News, which would have saved the paper from any more drastic cuts in the future, and would also have saved the Union about €20,000 per year. Now it is looking increasingly likely that the Union will instead be audited and lose its financial independence – a massive students’ rights issue that we should all be strongly opposed to.
“We believe that hazing is a grotesque practice.”
But it is important to be able to distinguish between different issues, in a way the national media has not: for example, even though we oppose the referendum, we believe that the bugging of a student’s apartment was a gross ethical misstep, and that those responsible for it in the University Times should apologise and resign, as set out in our previous editorial. UT produced excellent journalism in their reportage of hazing in DU Boat Club, acquired through multiple sources who went on the record, emails, and eyewitnesses – not unattributable quotes. At the same time, we believe that hazing is a grotesque practice, that Trinity should try to tackle hazing culture insofar as it exists on campus, and that no society or club should engage in it.
You would not realise it if you had been listening to many of this country’s radio stations last week, but it is in fact possible to hold all three of those positions at once. We would even go so far as to say that they represent the views of most students at Trinity. There is a difference between taking a position and taking a side. Attacking and defending with 140 characters, repainting the facts in black and white and being vicious to people who disagree: that is taking a side. Looking a little more at the technicolour means instead taking positions, and that is what a newspaper should do.
Now, a note for those still quibbling about UT’s actions. There is a legal issue first. Three senior members of the College’s Law School – Profs Neville Cox, Oran Doyle, and David Kenny – co-wrote an op-ed for this newspaper. They referred to the reporters’ decision “to enter a student residential building, listen to what was said within one student’s residence, and deploy a device outside the residence to record what was said inside” – a clear and uncontroversial phrasing of what happened. They then explained that the use of a recording device in this manner by The University Times was legally indefensible; the only genuine legal question is whether they would be entitled to publish the story with evidence gathered from the recording device. This would only be the case if the story was deemed in the public interest, which they did not believe it was.
Prof. Eoin O’Dell of the Law School then wrote an op-ed for UT agreeing with the assessment of his colleagues, but arguing that the story was in the public interest. But the crucial point is that all O’Dell claimed was that the UT were entitled to publish their story – though, since the recording device was still in the possession of Ben Arrowsmith when they ran the story, the paper were quite possibly entitled to publish anyway. O’Dell conceded that Cogley v RTÉ offered no legal defence for the actions of UT in the process of getting the story. In other words, all four academics effectively agree that the law provides no defence for the methods of the paper – that any journalist in this country believed it did is deeply concerning.
Separate to that is the ethical question, which is not for the media outlets of this country to answer out of desire to use the same methods, but the students of Trinity. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have asserted that the paper’s reportage definitely fits with their ethical code. Here is the relevant section of their ethical code. An (ethical) journalist, they say, “obtains material by honest, straightforward, and open means, with the exception of investigations that are both overwhelmingly in the public interest and which involve evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means”.
Is a private party overwhelmingly in the public interest? Overwhelmingly? In any case the question is irrelevant, because the vast majority of the evidence could have been and in fact was obtained by other means. None of the quotes in the original story come from the recording device, and many of them are from before the reporters entered the building in New Square. At the very least, the fact that the NUJ were able to so quickly and emphatically endorse the story, apparently without any attempt to find out what actually happened, is remarkable. It is true – we cannot deny it – that the higher-ups in the NUJ are older and wiser than us, and yet still on this point we must respectfully disagree with them. Either way, it’s Trinity students that should decide how much of their privacy to forfeit, and whether their homes should be an arena for student journalists looking to make their name.
“Our view is that someone’s heart telling them that something is in the public interest is not enough to make something legitimately in the public interest.”
The intervention of various national journalists and public figures, all with their own agendas, has destroyed the possibility of speaking about the issue with nuance. It is this paper’s position that bugging is always wrong, necessary in extreme situations, but completely indefensible when committed in the service of something so far from the public interest. Our view is that someone’s heart telling them that something is in the public interest is not enough to make something legitimately in the public interest. If that view pits us against a vocal subsection of the Irish media then so be it. It is our view because we believe it is the truth. To those journalists who have said that they would never hire us because of this, we can only say that anyone who prefers a journalist who keeps their head down to one who reports on what they think is accurate should never call us.
Some have said that by criticising The University Times while they were at risk of being defunded, we have become complicit in the movement to defund the paper. Those people, of course, did not look closely enough to notice that our criticisms were published before any petition was launched, but that is beside the point. If anyone reading this honestly believes that criticising the paper is equivalent to trying to defund it, then they are the real enemies of press freedom, because they are the ones trying to stifle criticism and debate because it is against their side. The whole edifice of public debate requires those positions between black and white to be there for support. Remove them and it all collapses into jeering between two unscrupulous sides: buggers and hazers, in this case.
But we cannot submit to that. We, all of Trinity, need to find another way forward. Soon talk-radio and newspaper opinion pieces will move to a new topic and leave us to work this all out for ourselves. When that happens we will need to start somewhere, and our belief is that it should be from these three coordinates: no hazing, no bugging, no defunding. Where the students and their union go from there is up to them.